How much should Christian EAs care about the far future? (Part I)

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by Dominic Roser


Long-termism has emerged as a prominent view among effective altruists. This is the view that in making the world a better place we should give more consideration to the far future effects of our present-day decisions than we’re naturally inclined to. In other words, the far future is a neglected cause. The premises on which the call for long-termism is based are commonly underappreciated. But they are as compelling from a Christian perspective as they are from a secular worldview. They include ideas such as cause neutrality, the insight that many more future than present people might be affected by our current actions simply because there might be so many more future than present people, the claim that we should take even very small probabilities seriously when they are about very bad outcomes, etc. Most of these premises are common to a secular or a Christian worldview.

However, whilst the case for long-termism holds on both Christian and secular premises, this blogpost argues that the case is comparatively less strong on Christian premises than on secular premises. Thus, my overall view is that Christians should in fact encourage mainstream culture to shift attention from the present to the future but that they should push for a less extensive shift than secular effective altruists demand.

I present three arguments for the claim that the case for long-termism is weaker for Christians than for secular EAs:

  • Christians are encouraged to refrain from worrying about the future.
  • Christians can leave the future to God on account of how difficult it is to manage it.
  • Christians believe that God already has plans for the future.

There is a part II of this blogpost which adds two further arguments:

  • Christians don’t have the job of bringing about a large population.
  • Christians don’t have the task to bring about bliss.

There is a common theme to these arguments, which can be described as a division of labour between God and humans: while looking after this world is always the responsibility of both God and humans, God takes over some extra responsibility when it comes to future affairs. Future humans matter just as much as present humans, morally speaking. But this equal moral status doesn’t imply that we have to take equal care of future people as of our contemporaries. Even if we believe in full impartiality between present and future, we can still believe that we should give some extra emphasis to the present-day effects of our decisions since we know that someone else – God – will give some extra emphasis to the future. The future is God’s domain: it’s his competence (not exclusively, but more so). This whole “division of labour” thought is similar to saying that my neighbour’s child and my own child matter equally, morally speaking, but that I have extra responsibility for providing dinner for my own child.

1. “Look at the birds of the air…”

There is a chorus that keeps repeating throughout the bible (over 200 times according to my counting): Do not worry. Do not fear. Take heart. It’s an unmistakable call to trust God regarding tomorrow and thereafter. The point of this call is not merely to prove trust in God but also to ease the burden on our minds that worries create. We’re told: instead of trying to take control of everything that might go wrong, let’s cheerfully give control to God to hold everything in his hands. “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6)

Of course, planning and worrying about the future are two very different things. And the problem is worrying, not planning. Indeed, although planning is important, it does not necessarily suck the joy out of life and, more importantly, it does not necessarily arise out of distrust in God. Joseph, for example, planned well for the seven good and bad years and trusted God. However, while we can analytically distinguish worrying and planning, they are thoroughly intertwined in everyday life. I would venture the bold claim that as far as typical humans are concerned, a significant part of their planning for the future is, in fact, driven by worrying. In case this is true and in case it is a fixed feature of human psychology, it would mean that if we only planned for the future to the extent that it is not based on worrying, we would do less planning. Also, planning can induce additional worrying. If we took that effect – i.e. planning not only being caused by worries but causing new worries itself – into account as well, a thorough anti-worry attitude would amount to much less planning for the future.

Note, however, that this entanglement of planning and worrying is less relevant when it comes to long-termism. This is so for two reasons. First, long-termism is about other people’s lives whereas worrying is a much bigger temptation when it comes to my own life. Second, long-termism is about the far future whereas worrying is usually a much bigger temptation when it comes to the near future. I added the qualifier “usually” to the last sentence because existential risks are a very fertile ground for worries, and existential risks looms larger in the far rather than the near future.

The upshot is that we should support sober planning for the far future. But when this planning is either borne of worries, or more importantly, engenders worries then we should tone down long-termism and courageously prioritize trust in God.

2. “I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me…”

Cognitively and emotionally, the far future is overwhelming. While it is not strictly impossible – as EA is convincingly preaching – to intentionally affect the far future for the better, God is much better at such things than we are. Therefore, we should put the far future into God’s hands.

3. “Never again will I destroy…”

Regardless of whether you interpret the Bible in a very literal or very liberal way, it seems clear that the Bible is committed to a vision of how the future plays out. This vision only covers specific aspects of the future. And even the few contours that it does sketch are difficult to interpret. An example of such a partial settling of the possible future paths are biblical promises about the afterlife: that it will ultimately end well (minimally for humans who follow God, but it might also end well for all creatures). Insofar as certain specific elements of the future are fixed, it would be wasted effort to try to affect these elements. This is so at least if we assume away sufficiently strong versions of open theism.

Note that many EA’s call for shifting attention towards the far future is based particularly on one specific aspect of the future: existential risks, and in particular extinction risks. This aspect also plays a role in the biblical vision of the future. After the flood, God said to Noah: “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood.” Also, the bible contains a vision of the end times in which humans are still around. These promises and visions speak against the possibility of human extinction. Admittedly, however, they do not constitute a rock-solid argument. First, for those inclined to a literal reading, it is noteworthy that the promise to Noah is only about destruction via the specific risk of a miraculous flood. And other visions of the end times are notoriously difficult to interpret. Second, for those inclined to a non-literal reading, this is not the kind of genre in the bible which conveys down-to-earth facts. My own tentative position is that the biblical commitments give us significant but not conclusive reason to exclude extinction risks.

Concluding remarks

It tests my faith to make these arguments. I find it often challenging to trust in God’s providence (and even existence) and it is much easier to practice my faith when the practical implications of believing and not believing are the same. In the case under scrutiny here, where I suggest to refrain from planning too much for the future because there is a fallback option (God), I’m trying to be adventurerously faithful and I’m putting massive weight on my Christian premises. And, I’m not just staking my own life but the life of others, too.

Feedback on this post is most welcome since this is an area where I hold my beliefs with significantly lower confidence than in other areas.

3 thoughts on “How much should Christian EAs care about the far future? (Part I)

  1. Thanks Dominic. I particularly agree with the third argument. A couple of quick thoughts on the other two.

    On the first argument:

    I don’t think that the exhortation not to worry is decision relevant for the way we think about making the best of the long term future. I think the arguments you present against it being so are quite conclusive.

    As a result, your conclusion which includes: ‘But when this planning is either borne of worries, or more importantly, engenders worries then we should tone down long-termism and courageously prioritize trust in God’ seems wrong to me. I think that when worrying creeps in we should seek to combat the worry but not combat it by ceasing to plan, giving that the benefits of planning seem so important and the costs of worrying comparatively less so.

    On the second argument:

    Whilst God is much better at influencing the far future than I am, this mere fact doesn’t imply that I can just leave it to him. Perhaps God has decided that his chosen plan is for humans to do the heavy lifting as best they can and that he will not do it on their behalf. Unless we have some strong reason to think that God will do this work then I think our experience that he allows tragedies to happen in the short run should mean that we should not presume that he will stop all tragedies which affect the trajectory of the far future.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Recent discussions have brought up a whole range of additional important considerations:

    1. PROPHECY PARADOX. A counterargument against section (3): God wants *us* to turn the predictions of the bible into reality (rather than watching them play out from the sidelines). A facebook comment mentions the book of Esther: “Haman’s decree can approximate an x risk (at least for the Jews). Mordecai knew that the Jewish people would survive regardless, but he is nonetheless convinced that Esther should take action to avert the genocide: “For if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14). The idea that I draw from this is that God will accomplish His purposes, but He does it through people. Also, it is better to work to do His will than leave it to someone else.” This whole discussion is similar to discussions in other domains about God’s sovereignty. There’s also a parallel point in debates about the Problem of Evil where it is said that God using evil for a greater good does not erase our responsibility to prevent such evil.

    2. CHRISTIANS SHOULD CARE MORE ABOUT THE LONG TERM THAN SECULAR EAs. An argument can be made that there is more value to human existence in case we presuppose that Christianity is true. And, therefore, more value is lost in case human existence is extinguished and also in case less of it is brought into existence.

    3. EXTINCTION = BAD? We need to engage with the question whether extinction is a bad in the first place. After all, one might say that it sets an end to our journey in the dark valley that is life on Earth – and it makes room for something better. This is a very delicate and deep question. Obviously, an initial counterargument to the idea that extinction might be something good is that God put us on earth for a reason – and therefore it would seem odd to say that we have reason to make this era down here as short as possible. Also, this question is possibly “too big” for humans to figure out – and since we know that God told us to love our neighbours here on earth and to save them for lethal threats, we don’t need to ask whether there really is a reason for doing so.
    One illuminating parallel to the question about extinction of humanity is the question about the death of an individual: in what sense is death a good rather than a bad? The evaluation of both death and extinction depends on a host of issues, e.g. one’s view of the afterlife (soul sleep, universal salvation, etc.), whether life before death is net negative or positive, and how the value of life before death is affected by the opportunity to get to know God (or share that opportunity with others), etc.

    4. WE DO NOT KNOW THE DAY OR THE HOUR. In Matthew 24 we learn that no one – not even the angels or the Son of Man – knows day or hour of the return of the Son of Man. All we know is that it will be at an hour when we do not expect him. A case can be made that this speaks against trying to predict and calculate when and how the end times, including existential risks, will play out.

    5. SHOULD THE LONG TERM BE LEFT TO GOD? Against point (2), we could argue that in case we’re not sure whether to leave the long term to God, we should be risk averse and take it into our own hands.

    6. ON BLISS. Against point (5) in part II of this blogpost it could be said that it’s hard to see why Christians shouldn’t work towards a blissful life on earth. One argument might be that as Christians we are skeptical whether earthly bliss is possible at all.

    7. DON’T WORRY BUT DO PLAN. Against point (1) of this blogpost we can note that when Jesus was telling people not to worry about tomorrow, he was speaking to people who often had hardly any control over tomorrow. We, in our position of privilege, have much more control. Also, there are bible passages where planning is endorsed. For example, in Isaiah 32.8 we read of the noble not only making noble deeds but also making noble plans.

    8. WHICH LONG TERM CAUSES? So far it is a completely open question whether a Christian perspective adds anything to the debate about which specific long term causes to focus on.

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